Why the Savannah Symphony Orchestra is gone

It was during a recital by super-diva Isabel Bayrakdarian, perhaps one of the best known voices in the world thanks to her soaring soprano contributions to the soundtrack of "The Lord of the Rings" and to a recent dance club hit called "Angelicus," that I learned what might have gone wrong with the Savannah Symphony Orchestra.

By the time Bayrakdarian performed at the Savannah Music Festival this past spring, the orchestra, then the most important cultural institution in this historic city for almost half a century, had been bankrupt with no sign of re-forming for almost five years.

During intermission, I found myself engaged in a conversation with a former member of the symphony's board of directors. At the time, she knew me, but I didn't know this woman personally. I knew her by reputation only. She is a prominent figure in Savannah's cultural and philanthropic circles. I'll call her Linda.

As Linda and I gabbed about festival performances past, present and future, the topic of conversation turned to the lost symphony, as these conversations often do in the wake of the its 2003 Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which required complete liquidation of assets, with no chance of reorganization under legal protection. At one point, Linda made a comment that illuminated one of the key reasons for its collapse.

"My social life was ruined," Linda said.

The SSO's bankruptcy resulted not in hardship for Linda. It was an inconvenience.

Without a symphony, there was nothing around which to organize her social calendar: no more pre-concert dinner parties to host, no more post-concert cocktails to enjoy.

Nevermind that within two years of folding, more than half of its 38 musicians would leave town, a huge drain of talent, expertise and prestige on the city. Nevermind that the hundreds of children who took lessons from them were now without teachers, perhaps without role models.

Forget that the demise affected in ways immeasurable the reputation of Savannah as a city that loves the arts. Forget that Chamber of Commerce officials trying to entice corporations to establish headquarters here are constantly complaining about their efforts being undermined by the absence of an orchestra.

If you detect a hint of bitterness, that's because I have spent intervening years trying to come to terms with the orchestra's downfall. Actually, I should say "we." My wife was a member of the SSO. She lost a job, but more than that: The bankruptcy, and the emotional turmoil swirling around it, challenged her faith in an art form she's devoted much of her life to.

Part of that reconciliation, as I have noted in a previous post, is realizing the orchestra's demise may have been a good thing for the arts here.

It suffered from a weak administration, a micromanaging board, an aging audience and impotent fundraising. There was a "plantation mentality" among board members, as one veteran consultant told me, that inflamed "the worst management-labor relationship I have ever seen."

In this post-bankruptcy world, money previously funneled into the SSO is now being funneled into the Savannah Music Festival and the Telfair Museum of Art, two local institutions that have made their case as sound investments.

So even though there's no orchestra, and even though my wife has struggled emotionally (though not professionally; she continues to perform in chamber groups and other orchestras), I feel the arts in Savannah, even to a degree classical music, are, if not thriving, doing OK.

I should also say I don't blame Linda, or others like her, for seeing the SSO as an occasion for commingling with society friends. There are myriad ways of engaging classical music. Linda had hers and I don't see anything wrong with it.

I single out Linda's comment for a reason (and this is the nut-graph of this overly long -- yes, I know -- post): It reflects a perspective ubiquitous among some board members, who are themselves among a small group of Savannah's small "patron class," as I call them. That perspective was not animated by an ideology that I have come to believe animates all good (in many senses of the word, including moral) cultural organizations.

That ideology is this: The SSO was a civic institution, first and last.

The Savannah Symphony Orchestra folded because its management -- which, in essence, entailed the music director, Philip Greenberg, and the 44-member board (the executive directors turned over too frequently to be effective) -- failed to believe its efforts were in the service of something larger than itself: the city, its residents, the orchestra's patrons and, of course, the art of classical music.

Instead, the primary reason for serving on the board of directors for many of Savannah's patron class was social. That's always the case, I know. But management often acted in ways that suggested the orchestra's first obligation was to the board and the board's friends (who, of course, provided much of the SSO's contributed incomes). Some even argued that management had little responsibility at all.

A former board president wrote a January op-ed piece for the Savannah Morning News after the SSO ceased operations that month in which he laid blame on the musicians, saying a solution to financial woes would be an across-the-board pay cut.

Another solution, he wrote, would be for the "community" -- which is a code word for big-money donors -- to step up once again and shell out the $450,000 needed to achieve solvency that year. This is 2003, we're talking about. Two years beforehand those same big-money donors heard a similar sob story, but dutifully shelled out more than $1.4 million to zero out the orchestra's accounts.

In 2005, while reporting for a business article about the "outsourcing" of classical music in the wake of orchestra's bankruptcy, I had a off-the-record conversation with the same former board president in which he continued to deflect blame.

The stock market was soft. The local and state governments cut arts funding. There was more cultural competition. The orchestra was paying more than ever to rent a city-owned venue. He even suggested a musician's medical costs (her daughter needed a liver transplant operation and constant care afterward) were in part responsible for the SSO's downfall.

There is some factual substance here, though it's rather unsavory coming from someone in a position of power. In the final analysis, however, there was much management could have done that the board dismissed, discredited, undermined or ignored entirely.

Many of these fixes were expressed in the letters to the editor section of the Savannah Morning News (as were letters of support for the board and Greenberg). There were repeated calls for Greenberg's dismissal (he had been music director for 18 years by this time), for dissolving the board, for cutting costs, especially the too-frequent practice of programming huge concerts requiring dozens of imported freelancers to be paid on a per-service basis.

None of these, of course, were heeded.

And here's where the civic institution stuff comes in.

If the orchestra's board, music director, patrons and staff had a sense (or a strong enough sense) that they were operating this nearly 50-year-old institution in the public's trust, they would have made the tough decisions needed to keep it going, just as the Charleston Symphony Orchestra did, which is now poised to have an operational surplus this year.

But because the board of directors was dominated by a gentlemen's club sensibility, it did not have the ideological spirit to withstand financial hardship. The club, however fun it may have been, wasn't worth all the money being poured into every year. In the end, a lot more than a social life was ruined.

June 20, 2007 4:40 AM | | Comments (6)

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6 Comments

I found this topic very interesting and right on target. I am a pianist who belongs to Local 802 in NYC as well as the co-publisher of a piece of holiday pops music that gets performances all around the country. I've seen our orchestra client base shrink because of these callous and downright wasteful attitudes by boards of directors and overbloated unnecessary "management." I think orchestras -- and arts organizations in general -- should get rid of the non-profit mentality and start functioning as self-contained businesses. I'm glad the Savannah Sinfonietta seems to have risen from the ashes of the SSO.

John's article is excellent. The larger sadness is that orchestras are folding all over the country. The US is giving up classical music. Its supporters are aging, and not teaching their heirs to love music.

Nothing wrong with the social life that went along with the concerts,esp as the parties got people out of their houses and into the music hall.

The article is stupid hogwash

I was a member of the SSO from 1988 to 1994. We went through two strikes in that period, but it was the second strike that made it clear to me and my family that Philip Greenberg and his hand-picked cronies on the board would rather kill "their" orchestra than let it evolve into the community-owned asset that all orchestras are. Good board members who challenged Greenberg grew frustrated and/or disgusted and simply took their volunteer efforts to other arts organizations in town. I was lucky enough to win another job in Jacksonville and then with the Pittsburgh Symphony, but my heart still hurts over the needless, senseless destruction of that wonderful orchestra by a group that still seems unable to accept any responsibility, the SSO Board.

Dear John,

Flyover is new to me. Congrats! I am adding you to my bookmarks. Your posting on the demise of the SSO is compelling, moving, on target. It rings all sort of familiar bells for someone who has been involved in the non-profit arts scene in South Florida for more than 20 years. I share your chagrin and disenchantment over the state of affairs in the arts in Savannah, Georgia. Miami (part of the much larger megalopolis of Dade County) has witnessed the demise of the former Florida Philharmonic Orchestra -- one of six regional orchestras hat "bit the dust" in the early 2000s and, to date, the only one still dead. We also lost, just last year, the Coconut Grove Playhouse, our largest LORT theatre in the state. I lay the blame squarely in both those cases on the shoulders of callous, clueless, careless boards and/or self-serving managements. The only ones who are -- like your wife -- heroes in my proverbial book are the rank-and-file artists. They are human capital, cannon fodder for the arts wars. And now, the Miami Performing Arts Center (see my posting on that subject on my website: rafaeldeacha.com) -- barely a year in existence -- is close to running into the ground due to terrible planning and, again, an uninformed board and poor management. Today's Miami Heralds article by Daniel Chang (miamiherald.com) under Entertainment bodes no better news. Good luck to us all.

Rafael de Acha

There's a lot my community could take from these lessons--especially as a 50-year-old theater company struggles with financial challenges and with the local arts council selling its performance space.

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